A Dark and Secret Place: A Novel by Jen Williams

All those monsters in the wood never really went away, not for me.

When Heather Evans returns home after the shocking suicide of her mother (Colleen), all the uncomfortable feelings of their shared past, of the distance between them, comes to the surface. Remembering the simmering anger she felt as a child, the house a too quiet, cold place with memories better left forgotten, her nerves are on edge thinking of her mother’s disturbing end. The eerie mention of monsters in the wood in Colleen’s suicide note could be chalked up to derangement if she didn’t know her sensible mother better. When she stumbles upon quiet, respectable Colleen’s secret stash of letters, she is sick in her gut to discover a secret her mother kept tightly sealed. She had been corresponding with the “Red Wolf”, infamous serial killer Michael Reave, whose decades of imprisonment for brutal, ritualistic murders of women is nothing short of gruesome, terrifying. When a young woman is found dismembered, her body arranged just like the “Red Wolf” disposed of a victim decades past, his outcries of his innocence begs to be heard.

How could her ‘well-to-do’ mother have been keeping such a secret, even while married to Heather’s father? The letters dating back twenty five years reveal more than any stories her mother ever shared, as she was never one for reminiscing. Why does the fact that in all the years Colleen wrote to the monster she never even mentioned Heather feel like a personal jab? There are strange things her mother wrote in her final farewell and Michael’s letters are like a bloody trail of crumbs leading Heather on a dangerous path to her mother’s poisonous past. The only way to attempt to understand this mystery is to confront the “Red Wolf”, despite the horror she feels knowing that her mother could have been one of those ridiculous serial killer groupies. With the help of the police, DI Ben Parker in particular, she comes to learn Colleen was Michael Reave’s only friend and that suddenly the police are open to her meeting with him. The “Red Wolf” will only talk to her, and maybe the police can find some information through Heather about these the grisly, copycat murders. In meeting Reaves, Heather will discover a tale of a family “everyone whispers about”.

What, if anything, did Michael have to do with her mother’s suicide? What does he know about Colleen’s past on the ‘hippy’ commune? Who or what are the monsters in the wood, and are they watching Heather now too? Why does she suddenly have a creeping feeling of impending doom? Is her own life now in danger? Straight away he tells her “Everyone has secrets, Lass”, but she is buried in the weight of the life her mother had before she was born. Colleen made choices, choices that were both her ruin and salvation. Michael Reave’s memories are like riddles or dark fairy tales, can Heather untangle the past through him or will he muddy the facts more? It all goes back to 1977 and a place called Fiddler’s Mill.

Violence is waiting, pulsing in the dark, Parker tells her their priority is her safety but how can you keep a woman safe from the monsters of truth? The knowledge her mother kept bundled up, that appears to have driven her to the desperate act of suicide, may well strip Heather of her very identity. Heather must enter the dark and secret place where the horror was born.

The novel is a slow read at times, although there is a lot happening. My one wish was for more time spent on Colleen in the past as well as raising Heather in the aftermath, what went through her mind, her inner turmoil. It would have been a lot more engaging with more connections to the characters emotionally but it’s still a decent storyline. I could see this turned into a movie.

Publication Date: June 8, 2021

Crooked Lane Books

The Secret Talker: A Novel by Geling Yan

Rather, he was like a ghost, secretly taking part in her life, undetected.

It is interesting it takes a secret talker, a seemingly ‘infatuated’ stranger, to force the real Hongmei out of her safe little exterior. She isn’t as self-possessed as she seems, as happy with the state of her comfortable marriage, which she admits cost she and her husband so much at the start. A relationship that was itself once dangerous. Hongmei begins to correspond with a stranger through email, a man who seems to have gleaned a lot about her emotional state, her very soul even, just through observation. It seems harmless as she carefully responds to him. His attentions become unnerving, though he says he doesn’t want to cause trouble between she and her husband Glen, a professor she once risked her entire life in her native China for. But the probing, the intimacy that is budding between them, is reminding Hongmei of her real self, the woman she has buried behind the quiet demeanor of a devoted wife. His questions are reminding her of the village where she was born, the secrets of her childhood that she has never shared with Glen, and making her question every choice she made, every step she took to escape herself and her origins. She shares the history of her village with the secret talker, about the Chinese resistance, all the things she had erased. Shocking herself, she speaks truths that have never been revealed to Glen because so much between them has been built on her own lies, and how can you open yourself to vulnerability with your husband when deception is the glue of your love?

Ending up in America, sunny California doesn’t seem like the world she was desperate to be carried away to. Every world she has imagined, outside her little village, has brought nothing but disappointment and the same can be said about men. When she first set eyes on Glen, an older, western, foreign professor, she is a first lieutenant working as a military interpreter while taking classes to further her education. Her life then, as now, was going well, including her the life she had with her then partner. Something about Glen immediately bewitched her, and her beauty made her just as irresistible to him. Their pursuit was reckless, dangerous. Looking at their life now, there doesn’t seem to be even a remnant of that passion. So much has happened between them since then allowing a distance to grow, impossible to traverse. Glen isn’t the man she once hungered to conquer, isn’t forbidden fruit any longer. He is still a good man, a provider, solid. While she is still beautiful, intelligent, she finds herself in a numb state, but with the confessions she shares with this nameless person, everything feels charged with eroticism. How can she engage this man, with her husband often a room away? How guilty she feels, how elicit an act secret talking can be, and yet it feels like she is stepping back into her true skin. Why is she revealing so much, stripping herself naked, to the bone? Is this a foolish mistake? For once, she isn’t in charge, she isn’t the one in pursuit. “How could she have sunk so low? Her body had run off, miles away.” Where is this betrayal going to take her? She is tormented by guilt, shame and anger- lots of anger, at the stranger and curiously, at Glen too! Isn’t he to blame for the state they are in too? Will she unmask this person, this stranger who is like a ghost, creeping along her skin, privy to her every secret?

Hongmei enlists the help of her friend, thinking to outwit the man who has been ‘hiding behind a shelter of words’, it only serves to complicate things more, makes the truth so much harder to discern. Hongmei begins to obsess over their interactions, to dismiss her own reality again. There is so much she herself is blind to. Her cultural identity isn’t a separate thing from her identity as woman, a wife. For Glen, as much as herself, their culture has molded them and yet their emotions aren’t really as divided as they imagine. Her past was one where people are always watching, an attention that becomes expected, everything one wants felt dangerous. That was one thing I thought about, regarding the start of she and Glen’s love, the constant eyes, the threat that always loomed based on cultural demands. It’s important, I believe, to why she is numb when things are stable. Maybe I am wrong, it was just my take away. I think being older, having been married a long time, I am reading this book from a different perspective than I would at say, 20. Fresh love is about the thrill of the chase, seduction but as love matures it is a different animal. Hongmei has needs and rather than confront them it’s easier to escape what has been built. Things settle and often we bottle up things that gnaw at us just to keep the illusion of contentment, as to not rupture the peace we think we’ve made. But delving deeper into the life of the person she has been communicating with could be the final straw in her marriage… dare she go down the rabbit’s hole?

This was an engaging read and I actually loved the ending, one I didn’t expect. The emotions are beautiful and sometimes biting. As more about Hongmei’s past is revealed, you begin to understand the reasons she seems to be willing to turn away from Glen but she turns away from herself just as much. Mysterious, quietly suspenseful, and heartbreaking. It is a psychological tale where the main character gets lost in a maze sometimes of her own making, not just the secret talker’s manipulations. A beautifully written slow burn.

Publication Date: May 4, 2021


The Happiness Thief: A Novel by Nicole Bokat

What kind of monster are you?

Natalie Greene has buried the horrible car accident that cost her mother her very life. With her shattered, haunting recollection of that event, hazy at best, the one thing she feels to be true is that it was all her fault. She is the reason her mother is dead. Now in her forties, her marriage has just ended due to her husband’s infidelity, so she turns to her adored step-sister Isabel Walker, once a troubled teen and now a wildly successful, spiritual guru of sorts. Natalie joins her at the annual Happiness Conference at the Cayman Islands, despite having just lost her own father, Isabel (always a powerhouse) works through her grief, surrounded by fans and admirers who long to be self-actualized and happy. Isabel is everything Natalie isn’t, as if Natalie’s happiness and future has been trapped in the nightmare of her own loss, her guilt a heavy stone in her heart. She doesn’t begrudge her step-sister her glorious life and is proud of her accomplishments, including her solid marriage to George. She doesn’t fall apart in the face of loss, not like Natalie.

Behind the wheel with her sister beside her, glorifying in Isabel’s presence, there is a suddenly blare of headlights, causing her to hit something. Once again she is the helpless teen and Isabel takes charge, confronting the other driver. No harm done, the man assures them it was nothing, a four legged creature. She sees the other driver later, a handsome photographer named Simon, who gives her his email. A shared passion for photography, even if her job photographing food is less stimulating, is a happy coincidence. Life goes on, Natalie returns to Boston and wonders about the stranger while she tries to launch herself as a single, working mother to Hadley, her teenage daughter. Hadley pushes her mother to try, make an effort to feel better about herself. Her soon to be ex is moving on faster than either of them are prepared for, putting a fire in Natalie that leads her to seek Simon.

When she receives an eerie email that seems to imply the recent accident is far more sinister than she thought, making her doubt everything that happened on the road that night at the Happiness retreat, she begins to question everyone in her life, including Simon. Could it be he isn’t who he seems? Maybe the trauma of her past is making her insane. She feels like an inept, amateur sleuth trying to figure out who Godfrey (the emailer) is. Memories of her mother’s accident are erupting too, and it has always been Isabel she relies on to supply the facts. After all, it was her devotion to her that caused such a tangle, a rift between she and her own mother. She meets Jeremy, a journalist, and asks him for a favor-help her find out what happened recently the night of her accident but there is a second request involving the past and her family. In turn, she will let him interview her. Jeremy isn’t a fan of happiness gurus or new age healers of any sort, who better to talk to than the popular Isabel’s sister for his piece? She knows Isabel is on the up and up, her passion is helping people, including Natalie herself. She has gone above and beyond to support her when she was at her weakest.

When she informs Isabel about the email, her sister offers to get to the bottom of things. She’s always been there to pick up the pieces, to guide Natalie. She doesn’t understand why she is tormenting herself, assuring her the accident was nothing, this is just the past eroding the present again. She is leaping to impossible conclusions despite the evidence, hurting because of the past, mixing things up. Isabel is greatly concerned, worried about her well being.

As more information rises to the surface, things get more complicated, illuminating the past. There is more to the mystery of their family, so many doubts, holes in Natalie’s memory that maybe a letter could dispel. This is, in the end, a story about ‘the strong habit of love’, the things we see and how much we miss. The story is good, but there were times Natalie got on my nerves. She does act immature, but it could be the writer’s intent, to show how in a sense losing her mother, blaming herself, having relied on Isabel too much and being in such a long marriage infantilized her in some ways. When we first meet her, she doesn’t trust herself, hasn’t fully stood on her own two feet and divorce demands that of you. She suffers from trauma still and it’s hard to move past it when you don’t have the full story and your own memories play hide and seek. You can’t always look to others to save you.

The truth finds a way and it isn’t always pretty.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

She Writes Press

Ruby Falls: A Novel by Deborah Goodrich Royce

The old story. The old name. The scene of the crime, Ruby Falls. I will tell him all of it. It’s just too ridiculous to explain right now.

Summer of 1968: Ruby Falls in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee is the last time six-year-old Eleanor Ruby Russell’s father is seen, before she is swallowed up in the dark of the tourist attraction, left mute and alone with the horror of abonnement. In the wake of the possible crime she becomes famous for a while and a part of the unsolved mystery of her daddy’s disappearance. What she remembers haunts her, but memories are fragmented, confusing to the mind of a child. How could he let go of her hand? Did he? Could something nefarious have happened to him? People don’t just vanish without leaving a trail, do they? Is her name a clue? To be abandoned in a place sharing the same name, what was her father’s intention? Trapped in Tennessee with a long line of questions, she and her mother are left at the scene of the ‘crime’ attempting to explain the impossible.

Ruby grows up trapped by the past, a child who is greatly changed by the incident. After all the options in uncovering what happened to her father are exhausted by the local police, she and her mother return to Michigan where soon Ruby decides to put an end to the torment her name inspires. She discards it with the return of her voice, becoming Eleanor and as if learning a new role, opens her heart to her future career as a soap opera actress. There is strength in disappearing into a new you. Current day, 1987 she is on her honeymoon in Rome with her new husband, Anglo-Chinese Englishman, Orlando Montague. Orlando is an antiques dealer, just like her father was and their love, a whirlwind romance of six weeks. Once they settle into their new beautiful home in Hollywood Hills, Rebecca’s career is on the rise as she takes on the leading role in Rebecca. Soon, her own life begins to mirror Daphne du Maurier’s tale, making her question where fantasy ends and reality begins. She wonders how well she knows Orlando, as he begins to behave oddly, arguing with her one moment, dismissing her feelings the next, and then unsettling her by making her look and feel demented. There is the strange old lady next door, Dottie, who seems to know impossible things. There is an air of mystery about her that doesn’t sit well. Eleanor and Orlando know little about each other, each has their own secrets they aren’t sharing but could his be a danger to her? As she goes down the rabbit hole the discoveries she makes will cause her to question her entire universe, every truth and fiction she has swallowed and what has been born from it all.

As her dreamy new life unravels, so too does her mind. Why is she keeping the trauma of her past from her beloved? Could Orlando be unfaithful? Is he really out to get her, or is she still trying to come to grasp with the disappearance of her father? It’s a labyrinth of lies, but who is the biggest deceiver?

It was a decent storyline and not what I imagined at all. I actually think the truth, yes you get it, of what happened to her father is perfect, makes so much sense. I wish the end didn’t rush upon us so quickly, but it was a good ending. My one issue is the way she and Orlando interacted. Their voices played in my head like a classic movie. You know, that stilted, unnatural, controlled “old-timey” voice. I wonder if that was the intention though, with her state of mind, with being in Hollywood. Hmmm. A decent read.

Publication Date: July 28, 2021

Post Hill Press

The Drowning Kind: A Novel by Jennifer McMahon

I was on my hands and knees, whispering my secret, watching my reflection, and feeling with deep certainty that there was something down in that water. Something listening, waiting, watching.

Something I’m sure I caught a glimpse of.

Something that I’m also sure caught a glimpse of me.

Jennifer McMahon has written a Mystery/Thriller that has the eerie, gothic feel that other novels lay claim to and fail to deliver. All those things you imagine beneath the surface might truly be there, waiting to pull you down to your watery grave. I love the water, as much a fish all my life as the doomed character Lexie and reading this novel over the summer as I did gave me pause walking by the pool at night. Loneliness, births, deaths, family bonds, mystery, and a haunting touch of the supernatural, McMahon has written another engaging, creepy, haunted tale.

As girls who grew up enjoying summer visits at their grandmother’s estate in Vermont, Jax and Lexie often plunged into her large, spring-fed pool surrounded by carved granite and creeping moss. Filled with a darkness of water that Jax hated to disappear in and her sister Lexie lived for, delighting in treading its cool depths, Jax loyally followed suit. Jax always followed where Lexie led, even eschewing friendships with other girls, whether she wanted to or not. Lexie had always been the favorite, ‘excelled at everything’, but it was hard to be jealous of her even when she demanded so much oxygen and an audience for her dramas. In adulthood, Jax is finally able to build a life ‘outside of Lexie’s orbit’, and has learned to set up boundaries, particularly when Lexie is off her meds and in the throes of a manic episode. It is for self-preservation that Jax has been ignoring her sister’s needy, pressing phone calls, especially when Lexie herself has been distant the entire year. Concerned when she listens to the frenzied, confusing messages Lexie left, Jax is ashamed for ignoring her, though everyone agreed that Lexie had to learn to manage without her. By the time Jax returns the calls, there is no answer, she reaches out to her aunt who lives close to Sparrow Crest, their grandmother’s estate and Lexie’s inheritance since her passing. It’s too late, Lexie is discovered dead, having drowned in the very pool she loved so much and it is now Jax’s turn to drown in grief and regrets.

The thriller intensifies when Jax returns to Sparrow Crest to make sense of what happened in the final days leading to her sister’s tragedy, only to be met with a deepening mystery. Lexie was obsessively researching the land’s past as well as their family history, which has its own dark tragedies. It’s not so easy to dismiss her sister’s discoveries as hallucinations nor the result of a decline in madness, though there are signs she wasn’t well. Truth be told, it wasn’t outside the norm for Lexie, in a manic state, to be uncannily focused on something. She was never one to do anything in half measures, but had she lost touch with reality? Jax soon begins to uncover the strange history of the land her grandmother’s estate was built upon, the estate her grandmother could never seem to leave. Her sister’s journal entries are full of facts, questions and implications, and odder still the letters and numbers written in crayon on the surface of stones by the pool. What was she studying or tracking? Alone in the big, dark house Jax senses something, could it be a ghost? Is Lexie still trying to grab her attention, despite her death? There really may be something sinister beneath the surface of time, something that took her sister away, something waiting for Jax to join her. Either that, or Jax is losing her sanity.

1929: Newlywed Ethel Monroe longs to have a baby with her husband Will and she is desperate enough to try anything, even blind faith in a natural spring at the new hotel handsome Will has booked for a surprise getaway. On the grounds is a spring that might grants wishes and possibly has healing powers. Her hunger for a child surpasses the warnings of locals they meet on their way that it is a ‘dark place’, best avoided. She and Will chalk it up to ‘foolish stories’, nothing more, never imagining that even water can hunger for life. Once at the hotel they meet the owner Mr. Harding. Ethel becomes fast friends with Mr. Harding’s wife, maintaining a correspondence with her new  confidante after Eliza and Will return home. As blessings rain on Ethel and all her hopes are met, she feels conflicted, troubled even by dreams but happy letters from Mrs. Harding reach her about former guests, and their small miracles. Their future is suddenly full of promise, all things bright and happy. Eliza doesn’t yet realize that nature has a mind of it’s own, that is has desires too. Can it be bargained with?

The past is always alive in the present, in the walls, in the shadows and sometimes in the ripples on the water. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: April 6, 2021

Gallery Books

Gallery/Scout Press

The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous

Nina and I studied each other. The adults watched us in silence, as if we were specimens being introduced in a zoo.

The Perfect Guests begins in the summer of 1988 with orphan Beth Soames being driven by her Aunt Caroline to meet the Averalls. If Marcus and Lenora’s daughter, Nina, takes to her she will become her companion. Maybe she will even be as welcome as a sister. They seem to have everything, class, money and love but it is love she has lost and longs for. She hasn’t begun to realize the importance the imposing, grand estate of Raven Hall will have on her life. If she can behave herself and fit in as her aunt urges, then she may be able to stay. Unwanted by her aunt after the car accident that took her parent’s lives, she longs for comfort and family, which she finds at the beautiful estate in East Anglian fens- a far cry from the children’s home she was sent to.

The girls become close, although the two are nothing alike, they soon begin sharing confidences with Nina even sharing her friend Jonas with Beth, cementing the acceptance she needs. Just as she is becoming accustomed to the family, Lenora and Marcus have a strange request, what could going along with it hurt, it’s for the best. Terrible things will happen, is it because she goes along with the couple’s silly game? Sadie does her best to please them even when she begins to notice suspicious actions. She doesn’t want to blow it, only to be sent away when she finally belongs but it is possible to ‘unsee’? Is it better not to question things? Does that make her party to deception? Is she tainted by tragedy?

2019 Sadie Langton’s acting jobs have been falling through but her agent Wendy has fantastic news. A murder mystery company wants Sadie which means no need to audition and the pay is beyond excellent for one weekend of work. She is invited to play a game… at Raven Hall. Supplied with vintage costumes to fill her role, instructions follow, if nothing else it’ll be fun and much needed money, surely her mother would agree, disappointed by her career choices as she is. She accepts not aware that at Raven Hall someone else is waiting, watching… lurking- are they taking the role too far? The other participants seem uncomfortable, suddenly it is all beginning to feel personal. Sadie learns about Raven Hall’s dark history and the ghost that remains after a once happy family abandoned it in the 1980s. Someone is pulling all their strings and there is so much Sadie doesn’t know about Raven Hall or even herself. A guest doesn’t return after she goes outside for a cigarette alarming everyone and other sinister things begin to occur- it’s dawning on Sadie that they aren’t pretending anymore. Will it cost Sadie her very life?

The past and present meet, family skeletons are released and it all boils down to inheritance and deception. It was a decent read, mostly I enjoyed the characters in the past, Beth and Sadie’s friendship. I didn’t expect the paths that the author took which were interesting, I also enjoy that every single character has their own intentions, even Beth at the beginning. It’s not bad to want a family and love, but who isn’t self-serving in some way? I would have liked more chapters about Sadie and her childhood as I didn’t feel as invested with her as I was with Beth. As a reader one of my pet peeves is each chapter going back and forth, I always feel it flows better with a part 1 and a part 2 into past and future but that’s a personal gripe. Other than that, Rous threw me off with the little deception Marcus and Lenora pulled because my mind was expecting something else entirely, so well done there. I enjoyed it even if it wasn’t as composed at the end.

Publication Date: January 12, 2021

Berkley Publishing Group

Girls of Brackenhill: A Thriller by Kate Moretti

Brackenhill stole the sanity of women and the bodies of children.

When Hannah Maloney is awakened by an alarming call, she is informed by the hospital in New York that her Aunt Fae has been in a serious car accident. An accident she might not survive. Beside her fiancé Huck, they rush from Virginia to the hospital, fully aware that time is of the essence. Sadly, with a six hour drive between them, they are too late, time has run out and Aunt Fae has passed away. Hannah is stunned to learn that she must identify the body, with her uncle bedridden back at Brackenhill it falls on her shoulders. Somehow she gathers the strength to proceed, as she’s always had to do. It would be so much easier, safer to return home with her loving fiancé Huck, leave the past buried but she must head to the castle and confront the ghosts waiting for her, including her dying uncle. Brackenhill is calling her back, but she will escape its clutches, she has done it before, she will do it again.

Huck, with his large, raucous, happy family, it has been best he be kept in the dark about Hannah’s past and the summers she spent in the Catskills. Once a charmed time with her aunt and uncle at Brackenhill, an enormous towering castle, it now remains a black spot in her heart. Worse, he is heedless of the knowledge that she had an older sister who disappeared seventeen years ago. The floodgates open when they arrive at the castle and Huck finally learns more than he could have ever imagined about his fiancé’s guarded past. The time has come to revisit the painful wounds of the last time she saw Julia alive, the final summer when she was fifteen, when she left Brackenhill for good, without her big sister by her side.

Still, she keeps some secrets for herself. There is comfort in Huck’s obliviousness, his trust. When the couple’s dog Rink, alongside his master, digs up a bone by the river, could it be the remains of her sister? The discovery and its implications are shocking enough without the added stress of Wyatt being present, now working as a detective, concerned about the ‘inconsistencies of her aunt’s accident‘. Wyatt, a knot in her heart, the boy who came between the sisters that terrible last summer. Her repressed memories are rising like ghosts…fragments of moments that have her questioning her sanity. Can she wrap her mind around the slippery impressions, sort through solid facts and find answers in her own investigation? How does one press forward when they can’t fully trust themselves?

The house seems to have been holding its breath until she was back in its guts, but is it the house or her own mind that is haunted? Even Huck feels uneasy behind Brackenhill’s walls, surely something is wrong with the place. Once, she and Julia found sanctuary here from the mess that was their mother. A pleasure to be ‘banished for the summers’ to their aunts place. Life was a dream, despite the chilly spots in the home and the locked doors of forbidden rooms, there was so much excitement and mystery to keep their young imaginations alive. For Hannah the woods, a thousand acres of peace, hideouts, chirping birds, fresh air and endless hours with her best friend, her big sister Julia, were a welcome respite from their other life. It is a glorious pleasure being in such a place, despite the awful stories surrounding its origins. Of course it couldn’t last, no spell was truly broken and the bubble burst. Once they were old enough to ride into town, befriending local teenagers, growing up, losing their innocence their own connection was tested. In letting other’s in, they invited ruin. But did this ruin cause Julia’s disappearance? She must put the recollections from that ill fated summer into order and face the shameful things only she knows.

The mysterious vanishing of Julia adds weight to the urban legend about Brackenhill and its Ghost Girls. A legend alive and well with 10 girls missing over 150 years, not to mention the women and madness. But what really happened? Why the subterfuge? Was it the house or something more sinister? What is locked away inside the castle, inside Hannah’s own mind?

It is a well written gothic story that makes you wonder who to trust. Hannah and Julia are at a tender point in their sisterhood, confused by leaving childhood behind, stuck between loyalty and resentment towards their mother and slipping into bouts of selfishness that comes between them. By the time we come to the end, the reader feels both disturbed and confused… reminds me of classic, spooky thrillers. I liked it, I just wish it was scarier. I was surprised by the ending, and I was happy about the path the author took but I admit there are a few loose ends and questions swirling in my head. A decent read for the fall.

Publication Date: November 1, 2020

Thomas & Mercer

The Invisible Girl: A Novel by Lisa Jewell

I have a dark past, and I have dark thoughts. I do dark things, and I scare myself sometimes.

Seventeen-year-old Saffyre Maddox’s past is dark, and haunting. She hides a terrible secret in the dungeon of her mind, something that occurred when she was only ten; a pain that only finds release through inflicting self-harm. This serves as the catalyst for the charming, handsome, kind child psychologist Roan Fours coming into her life. Through the strange mechanics of the universe, she one day sees Roan and his family move into the wealthier side of the village. Now their time together, the sessions are at their end. Roan is sure she is ready to move on with her life, but she isn’t better, not at all. She becomes a shadow in his life, on the fringes of his world. Watching Roan is her new hobby, something everyone needs. They never even notice her.

Roan Fours seems to lead a charmed life with his wife Cate (a physiotherapist) and their children, teenagers Georgia and Josh. But what looks perfect to outsiders is often far from it. Roan may be an expert at caring for damaged children, but with his own he is confounded. Immersed in his own job, often home late at night, there is resentment growing inside of Cate. Since moving into their new Hampstead home, things have felt ‘off-kilter’. Roan seems strange too, distracted. Then there is their weird neighbor Owen Pick, a computer science teacher who Georgia swears followed her home one night. This strange neighbor who gives off weird vibes has been recently accused of sexual misconduct. Furious over the false accusation, which could easily be the ruin of his already small life., Owen has yet another reason to blame women. Single, 33 and rejected by every single female for some unfathomable reason, now these lies. He finds comfort in an online website called YourLoss, as a self-described Incel where he becomes a part of a subculture of “involuntary celibates”, here he befriends Bryn who understands the rage and inadequacy men like Owen suffer. The two plan to meet each other in a pub.

Saffyre has been watching and sees more than the people living together do. Every omission, secret, and misstep. When she disappears on Valentine’s Night it is Owen who becomes a suspect, having been the last person to see her alive. Will the cops find something to connect him to the crime? It’s bad enough he is taken in for questioning, now in the court of public opinion he is guilty, his face plastered all over the newspaper. He thought life couldn’t get worse after being accused of sexual misconduct and now this! Cate has always felt unnerved by Owen, with that look about him, he just looks like he is guilty of all sorts of unsavory things, even if her son Josh feels a little sorry for the guy, who could be innocent. But Josh has always been such a sweet, lovely boy, one quick to think good things.

But is Owen a killer? Why is Saffyre maintaining an unhealthy connection to Roan and his family? Who is Bryn, why does he hate women so much? What did happen to Saffyre when she was just a little girl? This is a tangled knot. Our gut instincts are always right, aren’t they? Or is Owen caught up in misunderstandings? Is there someone else out there hunting?

Each of the main characters are guilty of some strange, questionable behaviors. Sometimes by being different we invite trouble in but who is the real monster? Misogyny, shame, loneliness, guilt, lies, regrets and abuse of power- this is a sinister tale.

Publication Date: October 13, 2020

Atria Books

We Are All the Same in the Dark: A Novel Julia Heaberlin

She has a bad, bad mystery to her. I can feel it deep in the hollow of my spook bone, the one my dad broke when I was a kid. My arm is never wrong.

When Wyatt Branson stumbles upon a young girl laid flat and still off the highway, he knows it doesn’t bode well for him. Girls and their bad mysteries have been his ruin and if the locals are to be believed he is guilty of doing something to his missing sister. Trumanell was the town’s good luck charm, with beauty as delicate and fine as bone china that belied her strength. There wasn’t a local alive that didn’t love her, unless you count her own father. A decade later her poster still hangs in the police station, a reminder of the towns longing for their favorite daughter, her disappearance a legend they feed on. With Wyatt’s new discovery, a one-eyed girl who seems more alive than dead, likely a curse among dandelions beneath her, he awakens interest in his sister’s disappearance a decade ago. The girl reminds Wyatt far too much of the beautiful Trumanell, who believed in fairy tale nonsense until she became one. Fate has never favored him and this is just another warning from the universe. He is nothing but a shadow in his hometown, a marked man living a lonely existence in their decrepit house, the one place he still communicates with Trumanell.

Odette Tucker is painfully familiar with Wyatt’s mental state and knows in her heart how wrong the town is about him. She is painfully aware of the hell he and Trumanell suffered at their father’s hands and trusts what her own father (the police chief) believed until the day he died having exhaustively worked the case, that Wyatt is innocent. The town has other ideas, since Wyatt has been out of his mind ever since that night, where a bloody hand print hints at what happened to his sister, it’s evidence enough to point fingers at him. His mind shattered for a reason, and that reason is murder! They aren’t the only ones, even an FBI agent has labeled him a monster. Odette’s heart at sixteen was captured fast by Wyatt and despite her grandmother’s warning, she could never stay away from him until that night. Trumanell never came back, neither did Wyatt, not completely anyway.

Leaving town and it’s ghosts at her father’s insistence, Odette escaped but could never forget the past nor make peace with not knowing. Despite making a life of her own far from it all, it is destiny that she returned to bury her daddy’s ashes and decided to become a cop, having been born into four generations of law enforcement. Showing up on Wyatt’s doorstep after rumors and tips from locals that he is keeping a girl in the house, she is betraying her dead father, involving herself in a case whose truth he felt was better left buried. She clings to hope that it’s nothing but lies, that the girl is simply a figment of other’s imaginations. For his sake, it can’t be true.

It is impossible to know that this odd, quiet girl (Angel), barely in her teens will set events in motion, a turning that will uncover everything that has been buried, altering her own life. With the help of her cousin Maggie, Odette is desperate to save Angel from the system and Wyatt from the locals she knows all too well can become a mob in no time, just as they did the night his sister and father disappeared. He doesn’t help himself with his wild ideas, broken thoughts, talking to his dead sister and following young girls. Their time is not finished, nor is the story. The more he is poked and prodded, the stranger he seems and the less people believe him. Are secrets truly hidden in the family home? Does Wyatt know more than he admits to? Does Odette really want to know the truth that she is about to uncover? Can she afford what it will cost her?

Obsession with the truth drives more than one woman in this clever, twisted tale. Nothing is as it seems while shame and guilt are two sides of the same coin. When the unthinkable happens, blame is easy to place, but only those closest to the crime question what came before. People own girls and their stories when they are victims, living and dead. Angel knows that fury can be felt from the grave, like the dandelions she was found among, she had been blown to a safe place and planted in soil where she could flourish, and she owes this all to Odette. Strangers can be salvation, and they can haunt you as deeply as a loved one. Her story is a knot in Trumanell’s nightmarish vanishing as well as Odetter’s hunger for the truth and there is a hunt, but can she succeed in outsmarting the killer?

We are all the same in the dark, but is it easier to distinguish truth from lies without light? I didn’t have a clue who was guilty, I was thrown in every direction scratching my head. The novel provokes us to assume things, because it is what the majority of us do, based on scant information. It works, maybe that is why people get away with so much in the real world, with others so busy planting their flags of guilt like conquered lands… Each character feels guilty of something like being a catalyst, a coward and Angel too, who walks into a story that is already written, blames herself for what is coming. The women in this novel are tough, they are survivors and fighters- but that doesn’t mean they are safe. Their trauma shows, worn as a prosthetic eye and leg but what makes them vulnerable is the very thing that makes them strong as titanium. Strong enough to outwit a killer? You are not on steady ground, and good guys lose sometimes but it’s a hell of a tale. Sure, I got mad as things unfolded because that isn’t how it’s supposed to be but what happens is believable. We don’t all get happy endings but how about justice? Just what did happen that night? You have to read. Julia Heaberlin can write her characters into some serious dark corners, can’t wait for the next tale.

Publication Date: August 11, 2020

Random House


The Stone Girl: A Novel by Dirk Wittenborn

cover184378-medium (1)

Like most people, I thought that my mother had retreated into her studio and the world of broken things because of the birthmark she once had on her face- a port-wine stain that unfurled across the right side.

The Stone Girl captivated me from the start with Chloé’s voice pulling us straight into her mother Evie’s story. An American born woman who grew up poor in the Adirondack wilds, once pitied by people for the ‘disfigurement’ on her face as much as they pitied Evie for the couple (Buddy and Flo Quimby) whom adopted her. Evie learned to trap animals at her father’s side and how to think and feel at her mother’s- gruff people who aren’t ones to bend to social norms. Through an unlikely friendship with thirty-three year old wealthy heiress Lulu Mannheim, whose loose morals and drug fueled antics give the locals more than enough gossip and reasons to resent her presence, the horrors that follow are set in motion. The long lasting question is, were they truly bad luck for each other?

Evie has a strength born out of the parents who raised her, never much wondering about the parents who took one look at her face and gave her up like spoiled goods. The locals aren’t much better as they are always judging her parents for how she is being raised and then there are the vile boys who stir up trouble, a predatory bunch if you are female, especially a teenage girl lacking the power status affords others.It’s bad enough to be marked as she is by her father’s shady ways and her mother’s ‘witchery’ but it is her face that is the most irresistible target. With the nickname “Giblet” bestowed upon her long ago, more painful than any brand could be, it’s more than laughter that threatens her. She is surrounded by misogynistic, violent men of all ages, yet it is the wealthy ones (unbeknownst to her) who descend upon the locals, known as the Lost Boys, who are the malignancy attached to her future. The pressure of life in the Adirondack mountains squeezed her out when she crossed paths with the handsome, cultured, wealthy monsters. In the aftermath of what happened, she thought she haa found a solution by reinventing herself when she escaped overseas at the age of seventeen. She didn’t realize then that when you leave a part of yourself behind and neglect it, it waits patiently for your return.

Twenty Two years later we meet her living in France, raising her daughter Chloé alone since the death of her husband and mentor Jacques Clément, who died when their daughter was only six months old. Now a highly successful, incredibly skilled “restaurateur artistique” (art restorer), Evie has kept her ugly past sealed tight as a tomb but now there is another malignancy threatening the safe world she has created. Her daughter Chloé has cancer, and her child’s only chance for salvation will send them back to the darkness and evil she thought she had escaped.  It means a return to the parents who have never met their grandchild and worse, peddling back to the ‘marked’ girl she used to be. She learns that Scout (a major player in her past) has visited her girl in the hospital, which means he knows where she is. Why now? It is time to act, and the two head for Evie’s home. It will be a reunion met with a hunt but who is predator and who, prey?

She is a pro at fixing things, like the stone girl who started her journey into restoration and whose history bleeds into her own. Believing she could repair the most hopeless, damaged creations, including herself, has been her passion and livelihood but the shattered pieces the life she fled are waiting back in the Adirondack mountains and must be patched up if Chloé is to be saved. Time truly is of the essence, the clock that is her daughter’s life is ticking and with so much violence on the horizon, who can be trusted? Can she depend on sisterhood, on women like Lulu who blew through her life and upended her world to stand with her? What of the mother who couldn’t protect her so long ago? There is also a strong theme about the importance of women, mothers in particular, sharing the truth of their lives (not just the pleasant things) with their daughters, which I found to be a beautiful message. Sharing the sad parts of a story are just as important as the happiness. Don’t be alarmed, not all men are the devil either, and she left behind one, her best friend Dill. He, who was left in the dark when she fled and is now working a job she never imagined he would take on? She finds him much changed.

This is one well written book, exploring the essence of good vs evil.  Make no mistake, for women it is a horror story that becomes life or death and the shock of what men of power can get away with. But if men with dark ‘proclivities’ can destroy women, men aren’t safe either from their manipulations. Mentors can come from all walks of life, guiding with pure intentions or “foul” ones. Those with power know how to cover their tracks, buying off hungry young men with a taste for wealth and success and will do anything in the power to protect their own, even if it means blood on their hands, even if young girls are defiled and brutalized. If you want to rise to the top then you learn fast it’s who you know.

What makes this novel deeply engaging is that it is believable. We hear about vile, monstrous acts (which often gets buried faster than we can blink) committed by famous, powerful men and that’s only the stories that get exposed. Imagine how many untold victims are out there in our wide world. The novel somehow manages to be many things-mystery, coming of age, thriller, crime, and has a strong message about what it means to be a woman without feeling like something I’ve read before. These women are not wilting flowers, not by any means and that fear moves through them like electricity around this group of men drives home how frightening power in the wrong hands can be. They feel like trapped animals, and to protect those you love you can’t always fight for the truth. I am always sold when it comes to mountain fiction, the heart of those who make a living off their natural surroundings and don’t bend to the expectations of polite society I tend to find impressive, not something to pity. I was already invested but it turned into so much more, and yet it doesn’t disorient you with the directions it goes. The story flows just like the tea colored water they live beside. How Dirk Wittenborn fit a statue, a sort of wounded creature itself, into the tale is fiction at its best. What happens to the women when they are tenderly young and fragile as much as when they are older and wiser, how their truth is buried with complicity is like shining a spotlight on a beast from the darkest crevices of the earth.  I loved it, if only we could root out all the low down dirty, slithering creatures in real life! But, as Flo says, “If you don’t have the grit to finish a job, don’t start it”, wise advice indeed! You must add this to your June reading list if you thirst for stories about deceit, power, nature (human and animal), survival and revenge. Loved it!

Publication Date: June 16, 2020

W.W. Norton & Company